Brief History of Halloween
By Shani Asokan
Halloween as we know it today, is a day of dressing up in costumes, carving jack-o-lanterns and eating lots of candy. However, this day that has become something of a global festival celebrated on 31 October, can be traced back over 2000 years to a holiday celebrated by people called the Celts, living in modern day Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France.
The origins of Halloween can be traced back to an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in) celebrated on the night before 1 November, which they considered to be the dawn of the New Year. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest season, and the beginning of winter, a cold and dark time that was often associated with death. So Samhain was not just a day to mark the changing seasons, but also to honour and remember their loved ones who had passed on.
The Celts believed that on the night before the new year (31 October) the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead grew thin, and that the ghosts of the dead returned briefly to earth. They believed that on Samhain, these spirits could cause trouble and destroy crops.
They also believed that on this night, it was easier for Druids (Celtic priests) to make predictions about the future. As the Celtics were almost entirely dependent on the natural world, these prophecies provided comfort to them during the long and harsh winter months.
On Samhain, the Druids built large sacred bonfires, where people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During these rituals, people would wear costumes made from animal heads and skins, and sit around the fire, telling each other’s fortunes. Once the celebration was over, they would use the sacred bonfires to light the hearths in their homes, a ritual that they believed would protect them during the coming winter.
By 43 C.E., the Romans had conquered the Celtic lands. Over the course of the 400 years they ruled there, the Romans combined two of their own festivals with Samhain; Feralia, the day of the dead, and the day to honour Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Many, many years later in 609 C.E., the Pope established the day to celebrate all saints (All Saints Day) as 1 November.
When Christianity spread to the Celtic lands, it too, blended with existing Celtic traditions and rituals and the day to honour the dead (All Souls Day) became 2 November. Today, it is widely believed that this was an attempt to replace the Celtic festival of Samhain with a church-approved holiday. In the Celtic lands, All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with bonfires and costumes.
Halloween in the US and the rest of the world
Historians believe that Halloween came to America with the Irish immigrants who migrated to the US in the second half of the 19th century. Before this, Halloween was not really celebrated as much of America was Protestant (Christian) and they saw Halloween as a Pagan festival. However, with time, the festival grew in popularity and by the 1920s and 1930s, parades, parties, costumes and the practice of trick-or-treating were common.
Halloween began to become something of a global holiday a few decades later when Hollywood began making movies about Halloween, exaggerating the ghostly myths and legends surrounding it. Slowly but surely, this holiday then became a day for watching these scary movies, dressing up in all kinds of costumes and eating plenty of candy. Not a bad way to celebrate the end of October, right?